Barclays: Is the balance right between pay and dividends?

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BBC business editor Robert Peston on Barclays banking

Barclays says its headline profits are up 32% to £6.1bn and its underlying profits are 11% higher at £5.5bn.

But these figures are calculated on the basis that a business that it sold in 2009, the large investment management operation BGI, had never existed.

So some will argue that progress is in fact less strong - because in 2009 it reported headline profits before tax of £11.6bn, including the £6.3bn gain from the sale of BGI, and it trumpeted underlying profits of £5.6bn.

Although it is par for the course to strip out the surplus from disposals such as the BGI sale in assessing performance, it is curious that the £5.6bn figure for 2009 that it highlighted back then as capturing an essential truth about progress at the bank features nowhere this year.

That said, there is evidence of goodish recovery in 2010 at its retail bank in the UK, where profits were 39% higher at £989m, thanks largely to a sharp fall in the charge for bad debts.

The other highlight is Barclays Capital, where headline profits rose 94%, including the spurious impact of revaluing its own debt. On an underlying basis, pre-tax profit rose 2% to 4.4bn.

So what about the contentious issue of pay for Barclays Capital's 24,800 investment bankers?

Well Barclays says that the bonus pool is down from £2.9bn to £2.6bn (although again I am a bit confused by the 2009 number, because a year ago it told me that its bonus pool was £2.7bn, not £2.9bn).

In that sense, Barclays seems to have honoured its commitment to the Treasury in Project Merlin that it would reduce the total paid out in bonuses. And an apparently relieved Treasury put out the following statement:

"What is clear is that bonuses are down, and are lower as a result of Merlin, and that the banks are paying more tax this year than last year, due in part to the extra £800m bank levy announced last week."

However salaries at investment banks have been increased by around 40% over the past year. As a result pay, pensions and bonuses per head at Barclays Capital have risen 20% to £236,000 on average - which doesn't look too mean, at a time when most British people are suffering real cuts in their earnings as a result of inflation and low pay rises.

Barclays is paying a 2.5p final dividend, giving 5.5p for the year - which compares with 34p in 2007, the last of the boom years.

That massive drop in dividends explains why some big investment institutions are beginning to query whether Barclays and other banks have achieved the right balance between the rewards that go to staff and the rewards that go to shareholders (to be explicit, they would like more to go to them, and less to the bankers - although it is not clear what they will do to bring this about).

As for the other sensitive issue of how much credit Barclays is lending, its UK retail bank increased its loans and advances to customers by £12.6bn to £115.6bn - which will probably turn out to be one of the stronger lending performances reported by British banks.

But Barclays Corporate, which deals with middling size businesses, shrank its loans and advances by £5bn to £65.7bn.

You can keep up with the latest from business editor Robert Peston by visiting his blog on the BBC News website.

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